Latina lesbians cleared in Satanic Panic abuse case

The ‘San Antonio Four’, whose story was told in Southwest of Salem, have been exonerated in a case based on false allegations, debunked medical evidence and their sexuality

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Four women, known as the ‘San Antonio Four’, spent 15 years behind bars, convicted for gang-raping two young girls in 1998. Now, Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Anna Vasquez and Kristie Mayhugh have been exonerated in a case that was steeped in homophobia and the Satanic Panic. 

The women were found guilty of sexually assaulting Ramirez’s seven and nine-year-old nieces. Ramirez was sentenced to 37.5 years in prison for aggravated sexual assault and indecency with a child, whereas the other three women received 15 years for aggravated sexual assault and 10 years for indecency charges. The case was built on inconsistent testimonies from the children in question, and medical evidence that has since been debunked today as “junk science”.

“Those defendants have won the right to proclaim to the citizens of Texas that they did not commit a crime. That they are innocent. That they deserve to be exonerated,” Judge David Newell wrote in the majority opinion, according to NBC. “These women have carried that burden. They are innocent. And they are exonerated.”

Ramirez, characterised as the ringleader, and the others were represented by the prosecution as predatory because of their sexuality. According to Deborah Esquenazi, the filmmaker who chronicled their story in Southwest of Salem, it took the court an extended amount of time to even find a jury that wasn’t outrageously homophobic in the Texas city. Pre-selection transcripts showed people saying: “I don’t feel comfortable. She was a lesbian”. The prosecution repeatedly brought up the women’s homosexuality as if it was an accusation in itself, conflating queerness with pedophilia. They asked the defendants: “insertion of objects into the vagina is consistent with a gay sexual lesbian relationship…isn’t it?”

The case came about during the fervent 90s ‘Satanic Panic’, which saw acts of child abuse linked with occult worship, throwing the U.S into hysteria with a slew of cases. Satanism was tied to any upturn in crime, and as non-heteronormative sexuality was conflated with Satan and sin, this only worked against the San Antonio Four more in the Christian state. “This case is the last gasp of the Satanic ritual-abuse panic,” Debbie Nathan, journalist and author of Satan's Silence, says in Southwest of Salem. Further fuelled by the women’s queerness, the court case was littered with rhetoric that cast them as a heinous coven; how they “sacrificed on the altar of lust”, the women’s “cult-type activity” with the girls as “sacrificial lambs”.

“It was meant to be these witchy, horrific women doing these things behind closed doors with little girls, because that’s what lesbians do right?” Esquenazi told Dazed, when speaking about her film on the case. 

When one of the nieces, now in her twenties, finally admitted to lying, she explained how her aunt (Ramirez) and her sexuality was a major issue. This all came out during Southwest of Salem’s filming, seeing a flailing case make an incredible U-turn. She attested that her family told her to lie because they were enraged by Ramirez and the life she chose to live, while it also helped her father win a custody battle he was fighting. The medical expert, Dr Nancy Kellog, also admitted her evidence of rape had been incorrect. This led to the Innocence Project filing for post-conviction relief, as Jezebel reports.

As of 2013, the women have been released, but it was this week that saw the Texas Court of Appeals agree that “more likely than not”, a jury wouldn’t have given the guilty verdict based on the true accounts and established medical evident. Their records will now be totally expunged, and they could receive millions in compensation from the state – a victory against a system that ruined a large part of their lives because of entrenched homophobia and misogyny.

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